Tea by the Sea

Unbearable losses, and the fight to get what’s yours back (Jamaica and Brooklyn, 1990s – 2010s): Tea by the Sea might be one of your favorite feminist novels of the year. Surely Jamaican-born Plum Valentine, the protagonist, will capture your heart as she’s “focused on mattering, on not being a person so easily discarded and left behind.”

Plum has been a victim of not having “agency” in her life. Lacking control and the freedom to choose her destiny, others made dreadful decisions that predetermined her life, leaving her behind. Her childhood was marked by strict parental control that ripped her away from her beloved Jamaican homeland to an immigrant’s life in Prospect Park, Brooklyn, where she did not belong. Twice they re-shuffled her from Jamaica to Brooklyn and back, abandoning her again and again. At seventeen, she suffered “the most greatest loss” of all: the day after she gave birth to a baby girl in a Jamaican hospital her daughter was carried away by the father, Lenworth, without letting anyone know their whereabouts. Plum had planned to name her Marissa, which in Spanish means the sea and signified the “promise and freedom” she never had.

For seventeen years – “6,205 days give or take a few for leap years” to be exact – she searched from Jamaica and Brooklyn for the daughter whose father told her she was “left behind” by her mother, telling everyone else she’d died. For Plum, that’s seventeen years of “calcified grief”; for her daughter, you’ll wonder what she believed.

Debut author Donna Hemans has written a stirring story that deserves the important Jamaican literary prize she was awarded by the Jamaican Writers Society. It also deserves national attention, tackling the complexity of human emotions, raising a fundamental question about what matters most to live a good life, asking moral questions about motivations and terribly misguided decisions. The eloquent, atmospheric prose also reveals little-known black history at an historical time when America is demanding its racist history be better known. While this is not a novel focused on social justice, it is embedded in its laser-focus on seeking justice for one mother and her daughter.

The Una Marson Award honors a leading Jamaican activist and poet who advocated for Caribbean literature. Another Jamaican poet and activist, apparently legendary, Louise Bennett-Coverly, was celebrated last year on her 100th birthday with a petition (it failed) to recognize a second official language in Jamaica, called “patois,” besides English. She’s credited with raising the dialogue of the Jamaica folk to an art level. Plum’s story is activism in a deeply personal way.

The use of patois is a feature of Jamaican literature. Hemans’ writing mingles the two ways of speaking artfully. English is the more common, but the local dialect is authentically expressed, flavored with dialogue like this: “One day him come back wid hur,” and “Mi dear, you nuh have to ask.”

Judge Tea by the Sea by its exquisite cover! Which establishes Plum’s love of the sparking blue waters of the Caribbean Sea and the powdery white sandy beaches encircling Jamaica, a large tropical island south of Cuba, part of the West Indies that become a country when it achieved independence from British colonial rule in 1962.

By Burmesedays via Wikimedia [CC BY-SA]

Plum’s major obstacle to finding her daughter is finding the father who kidnapped her, proving incredibly difficult as he reinvents his life twice, and never looked back. He named their daughter Opal, because her almond-shaped, topaz eyes reminded him of a jewel. Eyes that were also a constant reminder of Plum as they were the same. So was their skin, darker than his.

Will Plum find her daughter? That’s the central question propelling gripping storytelling. 

The freeing sea is symbolic of the searching plot to set oneself free, by taking a stand for what’s morally right, despite the consequences. When the novel ends, Plum is thirty-four and while her emotional life feels “suspended” and “fossilized” she has moved on. The floating sea also personifies the “unending” push and pull of Plum’s changing life.

The prose ebbs and flows too. Offsetting the almost indescribable pain of unrelenting grief, which the author has found heart-stopping words for, are lovely descriptions of Jamaica’s colorful setting – “Spanish style” and “plantation” architectural types, abundance and diversity of flowers and trees, spicy cuisine. Yet the beauty is pierced by Plum’s raw pain, and the island’s racial history. So the prose goes from feeling like a calming summer breeze to intense yearning and suspenseful searching that never fades.

Interestingly, the timeline also floats, moving back and forth without being specified until the end, seeming to emphasize the timelessness of a mother’s grief and the longing for the mother a girl never knew. Except for one date, the only date that really matters: September 16th when Marissa/Opal was born.

The geography spans Jamaica from its western coast to east, but is mostly set in small, rural towns on the northwestern side, near Montego and Discovery Bays.

Montego Bay:

By Gail Frederick via Flickr [CC BY 2.0]

On Discovery Bay a plaque commemorates Columbus’ sailing into the bay in 1494:

By Raychristofer via Wikimedia [CC BY-SA]

The Columbus history is important for another reason: “the Tainos, a group long extinct from Jamaica, decimated by hard labor and the diseases brought to the island by Christopher Columbus and the cohort of explorers, diseases for which their bodies had built no immunity.” Once we may have dismissed epic diseases as ancient history, but today we know better, living in a moment when history feels like it’s repeating itself. Erasing Jamaica’s indigenous people also reminds us of America’s shameful history towards Native Americans. Jamaica is also another country with a legacy of slave history.

The varied settings let us imagine Jamaica, and take us through the different places Plum lived during her formative and later years; also to an abandoned house Lenworth first took Opal to. He grew up in a poor, rural village near the eastern side; a built-up Kingston on the eastern coast is one of the areas Plum searched.

Part I is aptly titled Unforgettable, and Forgettable. Plum’s loss is unforgettable since she’s been tossed aside so many times she feels forgettable. Except to Opal, who senses her mother’s gone as an infant unable to be soothed by one of two substitute mothers, and then at four when she expresses the missing piece of herself asking: “How come I don’t have a mother?”

While you want to abhor Lenworth, your feelings about him are not black-or-white. Hemans has created a nuanced character whose motives and childhood influences give us insight. Still, the tragedy that ensued was a doomed decision he regretted the rest of his life, but didn’t do anything about except do everything in his power to hide by carefully controlling his life. Power, or the lack of it, is a driving force and theme. 

Of course Lenworth knows he committed a crime, actually two. First when he was twenty-three and and Plum got pregnant under-age at sixteen. He was also her tutor at her boarding school (a throwback to British rule) so he’d crossed the line professionally as well. The second crime, the kidnapping. The tragedy is seen on multiple fronts. Plum and Opal are not the only ones who’ve suffered, he has too. But our sympathies are always with Plum and Opal, who we know little about, as this is Plum’s story, told through Plum’s mournful soul.

A brutally emotional story, yet it’s painted with beauty, resilience, and so much determination it makes Plum the unforgettable person she fought so hard to be.


Leave a Comment

The Jane Austen Society 2

Calling all Janeites and readers hungry for comfort food (Chawton, England and Hollywood; 1932 – 1947): Looking for a novel that will calm you down “in the face of uncertainty, illness, and despair”? The Jane Austen Society serves literary comfort food.

After reading and rereading Jane Austen’s classics while coping with her husband’s long illness, debut author Natalie Jenner wished for more, so she fictionalized one inspired by Jane Austen’s characters and themes. Written in well-mannered, evocative prose, Jenner’s delightful step-back-in-time takes us back to Austen’s life two-hundred years ago, to where she lived her last eight years. 

Chawton is a very small village, “population 377,” in Hampshire county, southeastern England. Here sits a red-brick house, once known as Chawton Cottage, where Jane Austen wrote or rewrote her six novels.

In 1949, Chawton Cottage officially became The Jane Austen House Museum. The novel honors those who understood the importance of preserving the legacy of the author of “some of the greatest writing the world has ever known.” It memorializes the museum founders with new characters, historical scholarship, and literary criticism. Jenner acknowledges an “expert on Jane Austen,” Laurel Ann Nattress, but after reading her novel it’s fair to say Jenner is one too. The disparate characters she thoughtfully invents are united by a passion for Austen’s works. They, like Jenner, have an “acute understanding of Austen.”

This perceptive and engaging literary romp encourages us to want to visit the museum, but we can’t right now since it’s closed due to COVID-19 (endangering its future as of this writing.) What better time to take a brief virtual tour:

Jane Austen’s books were not just comforting to the author, the real museum founders, the characters in the novel, and countless Austen fans the world over who call themselves Janeites. They were prescribed during WWII to “shell-shocked soldiers.”

“Part of the comfort,” Jenner writes, “was the satisfaction of knowing there would be closure.” That despite “an inexplicable anxiety over whether the main characters would find love and happiness,” readers knew “it was all going to work out in the end.”

“But part of it,” Jenner goes on to say, “was the heroism of Austen herself, in writing through illness and despair, and facing her own death.” Another reason she attributes to “a world so a part of our own, yet so separate, that entering it is like some kind of tonic.” And perhaps the most powerful reason is that “it may be the most sense we’ll get to make out of our own messed-up world.” 

Chawton is a sleepy little village with charming thatched-roof cottages, but it could be “extremely intense” as everyone saw everything. That poses problems for many of the characters, who are stoic, shy, or hiding their emotions. All are grieving losses from the war, or other causes. 

The plot – founding the real Jane Austen Society that founded the museum – fires up about 120 pages in. Meanwhile, we’re introduced to a cast of characters from different walks of life, and how each was introduced to Austen, and why they share a common bond of seeing something of themselves in a Jane Austen book. Discovering others who loved Austen as much as they did leads them to discover friendship, purpose, and romance they’d kept secret as long as they could.

The romanticism echoes what Jenner calls Austen’s “big secret”: the chemistry between two people from “physical attraction,” “deep affection,” companionship, respect, or loneliness. Many of their lives are stuck, until they find each other through Austen. 

What makes a novel a classic? Why are Jane Austen’s timeless? Readers and the novel’s characters may differ on their favorite – Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, Emma, Persuasion, or Northanger Abbey – but they all understand the gift Austen gave us.

Understanding is the key word. A great opening quote by the British writer Lionel Trilling emphasizes the significance of understanding: “Who shall inherit England? The businesspeople who run her or the people who understand her?” For Jenner, it’s understanding Austen that unlocks her genius. That it’s the people who understand Austen’s greatness in understanding the human condition that keep her alive.

The band of characters is colorfully created, but most do not lead colorful lives. England was still suffering after the war ended, and still rationing food.

Each of the characters quietly mourns the loss of loved ones. Some are subjected to inequalities due to social class norms and societal expectations. Themes Jane Austen tackled. 

The first two characters we’re introduced to are a farmer struggling to save his family’s farm that goes back four generations. He’s lived his whole life in Chawton. He’s lost his father to the war and his brother to illness. As the novel progresses after the war, he’s still living with his mother in his forties. We first meet him in ‘32, when he meets “the most striking human being he had ever met.” In her twenties, she politely asks if he knows where Jane Austen’s house is, having arrived from America to visit the house of the author she adores. Her deceased father introduced her to Austen, so reading her is like “music” filled with poignant memories. The next time we meet her she’s a famous Hollywood actress in her thirties, already seeing her career dimming. So she moves to Chawton to be closer to Austen, along with her wealthy, scoundrel Hollywood producer whose fallen in love with her.

This opening scene is critical to our understanding some confusing genealogy that explains why Jane Austen was living in her brother Edward’s house on the estate of the Knight family, not far from their “Great House,” as Austen called it. The farmer could easily point to the property as it abuts his.

Chawton House, by Graham Horn via geograph [CC BY-SA 2.0]

Who is the Knight family? How did Jane Austen (her mother and only sister Cassandra) end up living in one of their houses? Apparently, one of Austen’s six brothers, Edward, took on the legal name Edward Austen Knight, when he was adopted by 1860s Knights. Related to her father, seems it wasn’t all that uncommon for a wealthy couple without children to adopt a child from a poorer one. The Knights owned a number of estates, including the one in Chawton. Edward became heir.

A fictional village gentleman doctor, the only physician in the village, is the character connected to all the village characters since he’s treated everyone. A widower in his fifties still privately grieving the loss of his wife seven years ago, he’s viewed as a “father figure.” 

Other characters include a remaining Knight daughter, who lives on the estate dutifully caring for her dying, ornery, ungrateful father. Now a spinster in her forties, she rarely goes outside except to uphold old-fashioned Christmas traditions. The house has a library containing over 2000 rare books, including first editions of every Jane Austen book. Growing up, she lost herself in her books. So does her delightful, bright, mature, and resourceful sixteen-year old housemaid who discovers Austen while dusting the library shelves.

Another Janeite was a schoolteacher that men found (still do) intimidating. Newly married, she lost her husband in the war and was never the same. 

One more character of note: a kindly gentleman who works for Sotheby’s in London, where the premier auction house originated from. He knows the value of all-things Austen.

Most, not all, of the characters are goodly, part of the charm and calm of the novel. Yet it riles us up to read or reread Jane Austen. You’ll likely see something you hadn’t seen before.


Leave a Comment

Hollywood Park: A Memoir

Beating the odds against a remarkably traumatic childhood (late 1970s to present-day; California and Oregon): Are there enough words to describe a severely deprived childhood marked by abandonment, abuse, addiction, mental illness? 

Yes it seems if every word is on fire. The kind of literary firepower Indie rock songwriter/musician-turned-author Mikel Jollett has penned in his exquisitely aching and written memoir, Hollywood Park.

Now 45, Jollett’s prose feels like he poured every ounce of his being and musicality into unmasking his story, after spending two-plus decades hiding behind “masks.” Hiding terribly pained, lonely, ashamed feelings. 

You don’t need a major scientific study – the CDC-Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences Study – to tell you traumatic childhoods can kill 70% of its victims. Jollett’s miraculous survivalist story bemoans that loudly.

For the fullest experience, you may also want to listen to his sixth album also named Hollywood Park, produced to accompany his memoir. You’ll hear the same rhythmic force and poignant voice in the music and lyrics embedded in his awesome prose. (Note: the horse-racing and running imagery highlight pursuits that profoundly affected him):

More than an outstanding memoir/album combo, the book reads like a real-life enactment of abnormal and child psychology texts, and why mental illness and addiction are toxic to an entire family. 

Toxic is this review’s word of choice since it’s also central to the name of the rock band Jollett founded in LA – The Airborne Toxic Event. Considered alternative rock, the genre is more eclectic, original, or challenging than traditional rock. Mixing guitars, keyboards, drums, violins, and cello gives the music a distinctive, pleasing quality. Hear it again in Jollett’s breakout song, Sometime Around Midnight, written one particularly emotionally devastating night after he broke up with his girlfriend, when he admitted to himself he had a serious issue committing to relationships. One of many excruciating coming-of-age literary scenes. “Music makes me feel like I belong somewhere,” says Jollett: 

The band’s name references part of Don DeLillo’s National Award-winning novel White Noise, in which a character, Jollett tells us, was “exposed to an enormous toxic cloud.” Precisely what his “ping-pong ball” life was like. We know that the moment we read this emotionally piercing opening paragraph:

“We were never young. We were just too afraid of ourselves. No one told us who we were or what we were or where all our parents went. They would arrive like ghosts, visiting us for a morning, an afternoon. They would sit with us, or walk around the grounds, to laugh or cry or toss us in the air while we screamed. Then they’d disappear again, for weeks, for months, for years, leaving us alone with our memories and dreams, our questions and confusion, the wide-open places we were free to run like wild horses in the night.”

Synanon – a notorious commune – once sat on the grounds spoken of. Initially a drug-rehabilitation “live off the grid” experiment, it ended up as one of the most violent cults in American history.

Synanon is where Jollett’s trauma begins. Forget freedom, utopia. Heads of children and their parents who came there to be saved were shaved, then their children were ripped away at six months of age under some perverse notion they were “children of the universe.” Raised by other women on the commune, the memoir opens when Mikel is five, his brother Tony seven. Age differences and temperaments make a huge difference in how their stories play out. Their father an ex-con addicted to heroin and alcohol; their mother an alcoholic (like hers) with a very distorted view of motherhood and family.

Mikel is the gentle, wanting-to-please child; Tony the angry, inconsolable one. Mikel bonded with childless, good-hearted Bonnie, the closest he ever came to having a real mother; Tony attached to no one. Their drama begins when their birth mother sneaks them out of the commune in the dead of the night, telling Mikel and Tony to call her “Mom,” an empty word regarding her. She’s a tormenting broken record repeating everything will be alright, nothing to fear as she’s rescued them.

Nothing is ever right, and fear is ever-present. Fear they’ll be caught by the commune searching for them. Fear of being alone. Fear of a mother who brainwashed Mikel into believing “a son’s job is to take care of his mother.” Amazing how imprinted that twisted message was for years, thinking all mothers treated their children the same.

Divided into four parts, running away from the commune is Part I, Escape. Part II, Oregon, specifically a “white trash corridor of northeast Salem,” is where they soon land. Their father has escaped too, but to LA with Bonnie detailed in California, Part III. Oregon is where more fears set in. “Mom” sees herself as the victim, never her children. Pits “Superchild” Mikel against “Scapegoat” Tony. Soon, a new fear arises. Fear of two step-dads who come and go. Both are addicts. One tries his best, takes Mikel fishing and hiking but his fate terrifies; the other is despicable, physically abusive, and forces Mikel to butcher rabbits he’s raising in a barn alongside their ramshackle house. Mikel is haunted by the violence; Tony refuses to touch the food. Dinner is a nightmarish event day after hungry day. No memories of comfort food in this bizarre, chaotic house. 

Mikel tries heartbreakingly hard to keep the peace, mothering his mother under her “special child” expectations, bearing the brunt of her psychological dependency and disease. Tony becomes a bad influence on Mikel, but it takes years for him to also descend on a downward trajectory.

Mikel is a precocious child and avid reader, far more advanced than others his age. Even when Jollett relives part of his story from a child’s perspective, it’s clear to others and us he’s well-beyond his years. Infusing enough misspelled words, questions, and immature thoughts helps him sound young. Sadly, we know he never felt young. 

In elementary school, he’s placed in a Gifted and Talented Program rather than skip grades. While there’s a realistic, thoughtful debate as how best to challenge highly intelligent, formative minds, his mother ignores the school’s recommendation deciding without giving it much thought believing she’s the expert!

Bouncing back and forth between two very different worlds in two different states, the California chapters are the author’s happiest. Wonderfully, Bonnie is still with their father, and he truly wants to be a father. Bonnie’s Jewish family opens their arms to Mikel and he enters junior high school there. Viewed as betrayal by his self-consumed, guilt-inflicting, deteriorating mother whose working at an Oregon mental hospital with prisoners teaching group therapy! Astounding when she’s grossly failed to nurture her own group/family.

Junior high is a fascinating period from the standpoint of the author sensing belongingness. Bused into a school where he’s the racial minority, he relates to disadvantaged kids who’ve been victimized too. In high school, he desperately tries to fit in, discovers long-distance running, which becomes obsessive on the track team at Stanford University, where he’s accepted on a scholarship. Dream come true? Not when you’re an outsider among the elitist crowd.

College is included in Part IV, Hollywood Park, named after the racetrack Jollett and his father spent so many good times together. Bottled up angst propels his music, learning how to “make the pain useful.” 

After his father’s death, Jollett poured his heart out in his memoir. A testament to appreciating he’d been “just broken enough to see beauty.”


Leave a Comment

Code Name Hélène 2

Courage in war and love – inspired by the true story of a female British spy working with the French Resistance (London and France, 1936-1944): How is it that we don’t know the name Nancy Wake, “the most decorated woman of WWII”? Awarded medals of honor from three countries for her bravery, leadership, and cunning saving thousands of lives during the years Hitler rose to power persecuting Jews and when Germany invaded the South of France.

Nancy Wake
via Wikimedia Commons

We’re not the only ones who hadn’t heard of Nancy Wake. Ariel Lawhon writes in her informative Author’s Note that when she first heard about Nancy from a dear friend, she’d “never read any story like it – much less a true one!” Adding, that “in all my years researching and writing historical fiction, I’ve never come across such a bold, bawdy, brave woman . . . amazed by her exploits.” Lawhon’s three years of research and amazement factor into crafting this amazing historical novel about an eye-catching woman who could match any man.

The photo above captures this captivating woman, a journalist-turned-spy who used her seductiveness as a powerful weapon, but wasn’t afraid to use a real one when she had to. What you don’t see is her trademark red lipstick, her “armor”: Elizabeth Arden’s Victory Red, “a slender tube of courage.” Interestingly, the lipstick was launched during the war to inspire a fighting spirit. Nancy personified a fighter, wore the lipstick to telegraph she was. 

Nancy Wake was a dynamo. Her real name is the least used in this masterly novel of codes. In a shrewd, tantalizing voice, she confides in the opening line of Code Name Hélène, Lawhon’s riveting fourth novel, “I have gone by many names.”

Nancy Grace Augusta Wake was born in New Zealand, grew up in Australia, a country she fled at the age of sixteen, already signaling she’s gutsy. Proven over and over in the four pseudonyms she audaciously assumed before and during WWII. She loathed the Nazis after witnessing their brutality against innocent Jews when she covered a story as a Paris-based journalist working for the Hearst Newspaper Group. 

Code names are listed on a one-page prologue of sorts, summarizing the roles she brilliantly played as that “fighter,” and “the smuggler,” “the spy,” and “the target.”

These names help organize this seat-of-your pants novel so immersive its 450 pages whiz by. Reading it feels like you’re in the midst of watching the most suspenseful, affecting movie you’ve seen in a long time. Not only because so many lives were at stake, including hers, but she left behind a “Great Love” in Marseille, on the Riviera – her irresistible husband Henri Focca, “the most notorious heartbreaker in all of France.”

On page nine we’re told there’s a husband, but their intoxicating love affair evolves and interweaves. Sometimes in his falling-madly-in-love, willing-to-do-anything for her voice, breathing sexual bantering and passion into Nancy’s war chapters. As Nancy gets deeper into the French Resistance spying for the British, she has no idea if Henri’s safe as she was away fighting the Germans when they invaded where their home was – overlooking the Mediterranean, a vital port town – ending the so-called Free Zone under the Vichy government in southern France. 

Writing two intense storylines – war and profound love – must have been exhausting and stirring. 

Here’s a thumbnail sketch of Nancy’s identities and escapades:

  • As Madame Andrée she was a socialite journalist in Paris when she watched in horror a Nazi whipping, dehumanizing, a Jewish woman on a public square, surrounded by “brownshirts” who were “tormenting Vienna Jewish shopkeepers.” You can count on her meeting up with this Nazi again, when he plans to kill her and her right-hand man. His is the face that thickens her blood, makes her fearless.
  • Hélène is the first alias we meet in Chapter One, eight years or so after the other names. She’s parachuting in the dark out of a Royal Air Force bomber plane The Liberator into enemy territory in a strategic mountainous French region, Auvergne. It’s the first time she’s ever been dropped from the sky, having completed, excelled at, grueling training by Britain’s Special Operations Executive (SOE). Two teammates are jumping with her: an indispensable, Hungarian radio operator Denis Rake glued to BBC’s French Radio Service, and her partner Hubert, a spare-no-words, former Army soldier she didn’t like in training, but now depends on. How Nancy ended up in this death-defying situation executing her mission is told in heroic war chapters alternating between 1944 and her past adventures, with a romance that converges like none other.

Besides critical radio communications – deciphering secret codes with instructions, and transmitting equipment requests and field updates – a bicycle is another life-saver for delivering messages to the French Resistors hiding out in the region’s scattered small villages. Bicycles are everywhere, allowing her to blend in. In one muscle-aching scene, you will not believe the inner strength she draws upon to get the word out.

Leading the resistors so they can “wage their unique brand of guerrilla warfare,” she must first earn their respect. Formidable for the “maquisards” who viewed her sexually and weren’t “formal soldiers” but willing to “make one last, desperate stand against Hitler’s invaders.”

Whatever you call her, Nancy earns everyone’s respect.

  • Lucienne Carlier is the name she adopted in Marseille when she and Henri were married and living extravagantly. He made his money in his father’s shipbuilding business, a despicable character, another storyline. Henri’s love is beautifully selfless, understanding he couldn’t stop his wife from smuggling Jewish refugees to safety, jeopardizing her own. 
  • The Germans dubbed her The White Mouse once Nancy keeps outsmarting them. Naturally, she becomes a prime target on their kill-list.

One defying scene after another fills the pages with high-stakes drama. The prose varies its pace, intensifying the impact. It flows from long sentences to clipped ones; sometimes a single word is a sentence, followed by a sequence of more one word sentences. An effective technique that strengthens the “extreme” of “inhuman, barbaric” crimes against humanity, “beyond the pale of what one human should do to another.”

A radically differently type of extreme is also here. It’s what makes love noble, courageous.

Lawhon’s literary range is extreme. Moods and emotions go from vivid, movie-like war stories that show the very worst of us to the pinnacle of the very best of us.


Leave a Comment

The Beauty of Your Face

Embracing who you are (Chicago around 2010s; backstories 1970s – 2002): Like the main character in Sahar Mustafah’s spectacular debut – Afaf Rahmen – the author’s parents are also Palestinian immigrants who came to America, to Chicago, where the author lives and The Beauty of Your Face is set. The beauty of this gripping novel is its elegance in seeking our understanding towards Muslim Americans in a world too terrified to understand.

The prose is gorgeously sad and empowering despite all the hatred and violence Afaf and her unraveling family endure. Prose that lets us feel what it’s like to be victimized by racism towards Muslims – to the extent anyone other than the oppressed can truly feel that.

While the emotional impact of the novel burns slowly, there’s nothing slow about the novel, opening with a horrific terrorist attack at an elementary school, where Afaf has been the principal of for the past ten years. At the Nurrideen Islamic School for Girls, outside Chicago, she’s been “overcome by her students’ sense of pride and purpose. There was an infinite number of choices for these women.” Not so for her mother’s generation.

Afaf’s rise through her daunting childhood to an important societal profession she’s proud of is remarkable given the life she’s had growing up in a struggling family teetering on the edge of disaster. Until catastrophe strikes and she’s left with no one to turn to, at home and or in school. Mystery, secrets, Islamophobia are all wrapped up in a very moving drama.

The terrorist attack – the not knowing what happened to Afaf, the children and teachers – stays on our minds as Mustafah doesn’t return to it until after Afaf graduates from high school. 

Afaf’s story opens in 1976 when she’s ten, her sister Nada seven years older, her brother Majeed seven. They and her father Baba, who toils at a plastics-factory to support his family, all want to assimilate into Western society, want to belong. Afaf’s miserably unhappy Mama worsens their chances and outlook as her objectionable presence hovers like a dark cloud.

There’s little pleasure inside Afaf’s house, except for the savory Middle Eastern meals Afaf’s mother cooks that remind her of her homeland she misses terribly. Dishes named in Arabic infuse the novel with their culture. No one in the novel’s beginnings practices their religion, yet they’re a family in dire need for prayers.

No matter how hard her father tries to keep the peace, Afaf’s mother remains a fragile shell of a clinically depressed woman “weeping” too often. Mostly, she goes from silence to outbursts of uncontrollable anger. Among her three children, Nada is clearly the favorite, dutiful Majeed next, whereas she has no use for Afaf, never a kind word. These dynamics become all too clear when Nada doesn’t return home one life-changing night and Afaf’s mother descends into madness. She acts as if Afaf is responsible for Nada’s disappearance.

What happened to Nada? The police cannot find her, but they do have a theory. Thirty pages in, the reader gets a gimpse into it, but it takes another seven dreadful years for us to actually know. Meanwhile, the family is never the same.

Over the years, Afaf is always looking over her shoulder, imagining she sees her big sister. Her father devolves into a full-fledged alcoholic who no longer enjoys escaping through music with his two Muslim friends in their little band. No one is watching out for Afaf and Majeed. How can they be when they’ve completely fallen apart? (Except for Majeeed, an overachiever and into sports, who seems to stay intact.)

It’s not until Afaf’s father hits bottom that he turns to Islam, where he finds salvation and belonging. It’s not lost on the reader that his wife desperately needs this but, like everything in America, she vehemently objects.

Chapters count the days Nada is gone so we can feel how Nada’s “absence is like an earthquake rattling the house.” A house that’s “tomb like.” All while Afaf is constantly bullied at school when she’s not being ignored or taken advantage of, demeaning and humiliating her. 

How does Afaf manage to protect herself against all the threatening, hate-filled words and behaviors thrown at her? How do you stay strong when you don’t feel safe anywhere? When there’s no place you feel you belong? How do you survive when you want to “feel like Americans but they don’t want us to feel that way”? 

One of the theys is the terrorist. A while male whose a lost, abandoned soul, similar to how Afaf feels. Otherwise he’s the antithesis of her – her dignity, gentleness, goodness, but he too has been dealt a bad hand.

The terrorist’s chapters show a marginalized person becoming a deranged shooter. Still, Mustafah doesn’t want us to hate him. Rather, she wants us to understand how an ostracized person could allow racial animosity to grow into beastly rage. How the powerless find chilling power in people’s “pleas for their lives.” And yet, the author offers kindness and generosity in her godly purpose. This is what makes her novel exceptional, beautiful.

Eventually, there are people who welcome Afaf at her most vulnerable time, when she allows her Muslim sisters to do so. Embracing her religion and culture is the greatest gift her father can give her. At first, she rejected his idea of stepping into the Islamic Center – where he’s found community, worship, a reason to live – to see what it’s like. When she finally agrees to a visit, she’s hit by warmth and friendship. What the reader sees is how “hope is religion,” and how Islam is meant to be “a religion of peace, not terror.”

Your heart breaks when Kowad reaches out to Afaf at the Center, inviting her to her home. She once had a childhood friend, but she’s older now, amazed to find “someone who didn’t want something in return,” and struck by parents who “engage in actual conversations” with their children. We see how children feel loved when they’re treated with respect, interest, care. Kowad’s friendship, and the older women at the mosque, make a huge difference for Afaf. 

Spiritual transformation and acceptance of Afaf’s cultural customs after decades of “invisible years” gives her the strength to feel empowered and hopeful. She’s always been an avid reader, but now her eyes are opened to teaching as a profession that gives her life meaning and “intoxicating independence,” taking us back to where her story began: a principal at a Muslim school with a shooter on the loose. 

Afaf’s story is one of grief and healing. She’s been a survivor. The burning question is whether she survives the terrorist attack after all she’s gone through and achieved? 

Afaf’s spirit, not just her face, is beautiful to behold. 


Leave a Comment